For the Record

Courtesy of www.cylinder.deOne of the first bids I ever made on eBay was for a group of Edison records.  When Thomas Edison said “record”, he didn’t mean “flat black discs”, but rather “short, squat cylinders”.  Five of them set me back ten dollars including shipping.  I remember opening up the box and pulling out five small cardboard tubes, each with a picture of Thomas Edison on the front.  I wondered if that was how the expression “canned music” originated.  I didn’t have a way to play the cylinders, but I had just bought a turntable that could play my antique 78 RPM records.  How hard could it be to find a modern day cylinder player?  Actually, new machines were available.  They cost about as much as my car.

My roommate from college was an electrical engineer.  I gave him the challenge to help me build a cylinder player from scratch.  He designed a set of circuits to connect the player to an amplifier, just like any other piece of audio equipment.  He also came up with a novel method to control the speed of the motor using a disk with holes punched in it.  A light was set on one side, a sensor on the other.  A small computer kept track of how many times the light blinked and adjusted the speed accordingly.  However, when it came to the practical aspects of the project – machining the mandrel to set the cylinder on, for instance – he wasn’t much help.

The 34th Annual Phonograph and Music Box Show was held over the weekend.  It runs every June and I’ve meant to go for the last several years, but I usually remember it around August.  I drove out to Union early Sunday morning.  The equipment was spread out in a large meeting room and a neighboring roofed over patio.  Everyone looked a little fatigued.  I’ve seen that look at garage sales on the last afternoon.  Still, everyone I met was more than happy to talk shop and explain the basics of antique phonographs to a novice.

By the end of the day, I found out my cylinders were the two-minute variety.  They were probably recorded around 1905.  I had to worry about mold; one gentleman showed me a cylinder covered in what looked like specks of white paint.  I liked the Amberola players that were integrated into a wooden cabinet.  However, I was told these were only for the later four-minute cylinders.EdisonPhonograph I would need to get a standard model phonograph that looked like a big wooden lunchbox.  Who knew Apple and Microsoft didn’t invent incompatibility?  I headed towards the door around 3:00 with a bag of records and a sheaf of notes.  One of the guys who had answered a bunch of my questions while balancing his lunch on his lap waved me over to his booth.

“So, do you have everything you need?” he asked.

I laughed, “Everything but the money!”


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